Tag Archives: grammar

Learning phrasal verbs and idioms

Students always dread the classic phrasal verbs and idioms class because there are simply too many to learn. I actually see them shiver when I pull out the phrasal verbs books that are as thick as bibles, but then I explain:

“There is no need to learn all phrasal verbs or idioms because English speakers simply don´t use them all.”

Let´s start by explaining the difference between Idioms and Phrasal Verbs.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a Phrasal Verb is:

a phrase which consists of a verb in combination with a preposition or adverb or both, the meaning of which is different from the meaning of its separate parts. (see http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/phrasal-verb)

While an Idiom is:

[C] a group of words in a fixed order that have a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word understood on its own

To “have bitten off more than you can chew” is an idiom that means you have tried to do something which is too difficult for you.


Some teachers confuse Idioms with Phrasal Verbs, saying that they are the same. I consider an Idiom to be similar to an Expression or a Saying, a phrase that expresses a situation that is unique to any given language, while a Phrasal Verb is just that, a verb with an adjective or preposition that changes the meaning of the original verb (although it provides a clue) but still describes an action.

Idioms, however, can also be two words long, such as “in common” “in general” etc.

Phrasal Verbs

Some websites have lists of 5 to 20 phrasal verbs that are commonly used. Another  way of learning essential phrasal verbs is watching lots of films and writing down the ones that are most frequently repeated. Simply saying them out loud as you watch also works. If you have a teacher, ask him/her to write down the phrasal verbs he or she uses most, and to teach them to you using drills and replacement exercises.

Below, the link to a website with the most commonly used phrasal verbs and how to use them in a sentence:



As for idioms, we only use 10% of all the idioms you will find in teaching books. Some idioms are useful because they describe situations that would take ages to describe using other words, but careful: using the wrong idiom at the wrong time or using an outdated idiom will only make people smirk. Sometimes it´s better to describe the situation using your own words.

Non-native language teachers are always delighted to learn and use idioms with students, while native teachers are always more reluctant. This is because using an idiom incorrectly can make a student look and feel like a total jerk, so it´s sometimes best avoided.

The Idiom Connection website provides a list of the 100 most commonly used Idioms. I personally agree with every single idiom they put on the list. If you can master these idioms, you´ll be ok.


I include phrasal verb and idioms in all my course books so students can learn to use them in the context they are studying. This helps them divide the meaning of each idiom and phrasal verb and avoid incorrect usage. If you want some practice, check out my store.

Advanced adjectives – For teachers

Student usually find it hard to add adjectives in their sentences, mostly due to fear of using the wrong ones. So what are advanced adjectives? They are those lovely words native speakers use to improve the quality of their writing, but which are seldom used in spoken English.

Lovely examples include:

Feeling you are a part of a learning group on a shared journey is an inestimable advantage.

The bombing of the Chinese Embassy was a deeply regrettable mistake.

So how do we teach these babies, and how do you teach an advanced student to feel comfortable with them? They will use them during class, and even do the exercises correctly, but will they use them in their next e-mail?

I started off explaining adjectives and their formation (suffixes, placement, etc.).

I then provided a list of frequently used adjectives, such as the ones listed above. There were about 20 of them for each adjective ending (able, ible, uble…)

This was followed by an fill-in-the-blank exercise with sentences taken from articles, etc. for each adjective ending.

I then added an exercise with sentences in which the adjective was replaced with a definition. The student had to use one of the adjective from the previous exercise to replace the definition, producing a much simpler sentence.


Your attitude in this matter cannot be defended.

You attitude in this matter is indefensible.

In the next activity, the student has to use the same adjectives to create adjectives from root words in brackets, such as eat > edible.

It´s really important to repeat the same adjective throughout, and not give the student endless lists of adjectives. He or she will only digest a few, so work on those few adjectives in as many ways as possible. This will help the student use them in different ways and gain confidence when he or she wants to use them in the future.

Lastly I added a short cooling-off exercise with intensifying adjective such as utter, total used in sentences like, “he is a total idiot”.

A little humour always helps the students and teachers wind down….

If you would like a copy of the exercise, send a request via the website, leave a comment here or at our Facebook page.